Let's play a little game. We'll pick three different doors and see what's behind them.
Door No. 1: The Washington Nationals' bullpen
First game of a doubleheader, a beautiful 74-degree day in our nation's capital, teams adorned in pink for a Mother's Day crowd of more than 31,000 at Nationals Park. It had been a joyful day for the home crowd. Bryce Harper treated fans to a first-inning home run, a low screamer that just cleared the fence in right. Trea Turner added another home run, and Gio Gonzalez pitched into the seventh inning. The Nationals led the Phillies 3-1 entering the ninth inning.
Manager Dusty Baker rolled the dice and Shawn Kelley's name came up. He would throw 24 pitches. Aaron Altherr homered off a 3-2 fastball. With one out, Maikel Franco doubled off the wall in deep center, just missing a home run by a few inches. Cameron Rupp laced a double into the left-center gap to tie the score. After Freddy Galvis walked, that was it for Kelley. Koda Glover came in and Ty Kelly singled in what would be the winning run.
I remember hearing Baker say something near the start of the season, when he was still waiting to name his closer. He was asked if he'd prefer an established closer, and he said something like, "Sure, but what am I going to do? These are the guys I have." Not exactly a vote of confidence. He didn't say, "Sure, but I think these guys will be fine." I mean, every established closer was at one point just another reliever trying to prove himself.
Maybe Dusty knew what he was getting into. Blake Treinen started the season as the closer. Got saves in three of the first four games, although he allowed runs in two of those appearances. He got another save chance, but Kelley had to rescue him to get the final two outs. So, Kelley was the closer and picked up three saves in three opportunities. Glover got the next two saves, as Kelley had pitched three times in four days. The next save chance actually went to Enny Romero, but that was because Kelley and Glover had both landed on the 10-day disabled list. Matt Albers got a save the next day. On May 7, the Nationals blew a 5-2 lead to the Phillies in the eighth (Matt Grace and Albers gave up the runs), and Treinen lost it in the 10th. On May 9, Romero blew a 4-2 lead to the Orioles in the ninth, and Jacob Turner would get the loss in the 12th.
Then came Sunday. The Nationals lost the opener. The bullpen blew another lead in the nightcap, except the offense rescued it with two runs in the eighth on Michael Taylor's home run, and Albers tossed a 1-2-3 ninth.
From afar, it looks like complete chaos. Five relievers have saves. The Nationals have lost three games they led entering the ninth. The bullpen ERA of 5.33 ranks 28th in the majors and was ranked 18th in win probability added entering Sunday (and it will drop at least a few spots after the doubleheader).
Panic level of fans: 10
The Nationals are going to waste the end of Bryce Harper's time in D.C. with this bullpen.— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) May 15, 2017
Should be: 8
There are legitimate concerns here, although the five guys with saves is somewhat a reflection of unique circumstances. The biggest problem is that Kelley and Joe Blanton have both allowed six home runs already. Kelley is at least supposed to dominate right-handers with his fastball/slider combo, but all three hits he allowed Sunday came on fastballs to right-handers. The good news is these guys were good relievers last year, and Albers, Turner and Glover have pitched pretty well. Plus, playing in the wretched NL East, there's time for the Nationals to work out the kinks. Still, I'm not sure Baker is going to completely trust a rookie closer in Glover, so look for them to wheel and deal in July.
Door No. 2: Julio Urias
The young left-hander has been so hyped and looked so polished and confident when called up at age 19 last year -- and in posting a 2.73 ERA over his final 16 appearances -- that we expected immediate greatness when he was recalled from the minors on April 27. (He started there to preserve some innings, although a slate of injuries got him back up to the majors after just 14 innings in Triple-A.)
His four starts have been all over the place. On Sunday against the Rockies, he had a chance to pitch the Dodgers into first place but got hit around as he allowed seven hits and six runs in four innings with just one strikeout. Maybe you want to give him a mulligan because it was Coors Field, especially since in his previous start against the Pirates he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Still, Coors Field or not, it was a terrible outing:
Hahaha Julio Urias walks a batter, throws a ball up the RF line, hangs a slider belt-high to Pat Valaika, and it's still just COOOOOOORS— Purple Dinosaur Pod. (@purpledinocast) May 14, 2017
Even against the Pirates, catcher Yasmani Grandal said after the game, the only pitch Urias had working that night was his fastball. In his first two starts, both against a Giants team that had been struggling on offense, he walked eight batters with just five strikeouts. Overall, he has 11 walks and just 11 K's in 21 innings.
Panic level of fans: 2
Scrolling through Twitter, I don't sense much concern from Dodgers fans.
Should be: 4
The concern I have is that low strikeout rate and lack of command on his off-speed pitches. Of course, he doesn't turn 21 until August and the Dodgers have been so careful with him that he didn't throw a lot of innings in his minor league career, so we're still talking about a pitcher a long way from maturity. That said, the idea that he's going to be the Dodgers' No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw by the time the postseason rolls around seems a bit optimistic to me. Luckily for the Dodgers, it's another lefty who might be making a big leap this season: Alex Wood has a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings. The Dodgers haven't pushed him past six innings yet, but he's throwing strikes and showing dominant strikeout stuff. The rich get richer.
Door No. 3: Jake Arrieta
Playing the team the Cubs need to beat, Arrieta had another mediocre outing on Sunday, allowing four runs in six innings, including two home runs, as the Cardinals won 5-0 to drop the Cubs to a game under .500. This sums up Arrieta's performance going back to last year:
Jake Arrieta since June 27 (including postseason):— Chris Jaffe (@jaffechris) May 15, 2017
A little under 6 IP/GS
That ain't a small sample, people.
The pitcher who dominated in 2015 and early in 2016 is nowhere to be found. This year's version of Arrieta isn't walking batters like he did the second half of last year, but he's giving up more hits and more home runs. Put it this way: Over his past 24 starts, he has allowed 21 home runs; over his previous 24 starts, he'd allowed 21 earned runs.
Panic level of fans: 10++++++++
I don't want to say it but I might be done with Jake Arrieta— Frederic (@StoolFrederic) May 14, 2017
Matt carpenter, most overrated player of all time, now takes Jake deep. Jake should have taken extension when offered. Worthless now— Lucas Jones (@LucJones18) May 14, 2017
Should be: 9
It's hard to believe a guy who basically had reached a level few mortals had ever reached -- Koufax, Gibson in '68, Maddux, peak Pedro -- would decline to mediocrity so rapidly without an injury, but that's what has happened. One thing I've seen suggested is that batters have simply stopped swinging at the slider/cutter that was so dominant. That's not what's happening; they did swing less often last year compared to 2015 but are swinging more often this year than in 2016. What they are doing is hitting it:
And if batters don't fear the slider, they can do this to fastballs -- especially ones over the middle of the plate -- even if you've been 0-for-28 against your old college teammate:
When you take one of your groomsmen deep. pic.twitter.com/I3wVfkA6VV— MLB (@MLB) May 14, 2017
Given the state of the Cubs, mediocre Arrieta isn't going to help them chase down the Cardinals.
Ceremony of the day. You might have heard about this one:
Play of the day. Byron Buxton is so good in center field ...
Quick thoughts ... The Cardinals have won eight of nine and 18 of 24. Their lead over the Cubs is 3.5 games, not enough to project them as division winners. FanGraphs still sees the Cubs as heavy favorites to win the Central. ... The Brewers are playing some fun baseball and scored five runs in the eighth to stun the Mets 11-9. Eric Thames is hardly a one-man show, as they're second in the majors in runs. Catcher Manny Pina had the big blast on Sunday, a three-run homer off Addison Reed. ... This Jorge Soler home run goes an estimated 470 feet, the longest of 2017. ... The weather is warming up and there were 52 home runs hit on Sunday, tied for the second most on any day in the past 10 years (although two doubleheaders helped). ... Huge four-game sweep for the Blue Jays over the Mariners, winning 3-2 Sunday on Kevin Pillar's walk-off homer against Edwin Diaz. They're not out of the woods yet, but they're 17-21 with a five-game winning streak, and I think they can back into the playoff picture with that rotation. ... The Mariners not only have four starting pitchers on the DL, but Ryan Weber, called up to start on Saturday, got hurt as well. May was supposed to be the Mariners' chance to have a big month, with a weaker schedule and a bunch of home games. Now they're starting to see their season fall apart. ... Indians fans have to be happy to see Jason Kipnis finally do something with a four-hit, two-homer game. ... Kevin Gausman followed that great start against the Nationals with another stinker. Time to start worrying about him? ... Mike Trout has homered in three straight games, is slugging .738 and might actually have found a new level. ... Dear Braves: Find Freddie Freeman some better teammates. ... Finally, hope all the mothers out there had a great day. My own mother always indulged my baseball interest -- a new book for my birthday or Christmas, that pack of baseball cards at the drug store, the car rides to Little League practice -- so here's a thanks to her for everything.